Fool Me Once …

Reading through the Iran weapons coverage today, we found a decent dose of journalistic skepticism, even if it was often not as prominent as we would have liked.

Media critics were on full alert today with worries that the latest administration claims of Iranian involvement in Iraq, reported over the weekend, are being treated with a similar lack of skepticism as the evidence of Iraq’s WMD in 2002 and 2003.

Greg Mitchell, over at Editor and Publisher sums up the fears by describing the national papers as having “joined in suggesting a slam dunk case for Iranian weapons killing Americans in Iraq.”

Granted, there was much that was sketchy about the anonymous Baghdad press briefing that led to today’s stories. First, it was anonymous. Though the three U.S. officials laid out on a table the deadly explosive devices that were being used, and the serial codes that linked them to Iranian factories, there was something suspicious about their unwillingness to attach their names to such a claim. Then there were the extrapolations the officials made. It was not enough to report on the presence of Iranian arms in Iraq (weapons that have killed more than 170 Americans and wounded 620 since June 2004) the administration, without any clear evidence, is pinning the blame on the highest levels of the Iranian government, Ayatollah Khamenei himself, acting through his Al Quds Brigade.

But, reading through the articles today, we found a decent dose of journalistic skepticism—even if it was often not as prominent as we would have liked.

The Washington Post report made sure to remind us that, “With so much official U.S. buildup about the purported evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq, the briefing was also notable for what was not said or shown. The officials offered no evidence to substantiate allegations that the “highest levels” of the Iranian government had sanctioned support for attacks against U.S. troops. Also, the military briefers were not joined by U.S. diplomats or representatives of the CIA or the office of the Director of National Intelligence.” The New York Times backtracked from its breathless presentation of the same details in Saturday’s paper. In that piece, Michael Gordon, seemingly high on the scoop the paper had been handed, reported on the news without much doubt about the administrations claims. For example, quoting directly from the U.S. report that “as part of its strategy in Iraq, Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy — approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force — to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets.” Today’s Times article presented a decidedly more contextualized look at the evidence’s meaning. Referring to the unsubstantiated implications that the Iranian government was directly involved, the article noted, “That inference, and the anonymity of the officials who made it, seemed likely to generate skepticism among those suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq, and perhaps even trying to lay the groundwork for war with Iran.”

The Times went even further, noting in its own article the perception by a senior military official that it was the press itself that was blowing things out of proportion and not the government. It’s as though the editors were feeling guilty for having played their Saturday exclusive according to the D.C. rules of news management—they got the scoop, but in exchange had to give it prominent play without much pressure on the claims.

Elsewhere, most papers made efforts to cover their behinds amply, leaving little room for suggestions that they weren’t approaching this news with raised eyebrows.

In fact, we have to give a hat tip to the McClatchy papers for adding a necessary caveat in the other direction. Reminding readers that this intelligence is in no way comparable to what was coming out in the months before the Iraq war, it pointed out that, “The evidence of Iranian meddling in Iraq, however, is far more compelling than much of the administration’s pre-war intelligence about Iraq. Iran’s clerical regime has long armed, advised and trained Iraqi Shiite militias, and it’s supplied the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah with sophisticated bombs similar to those used against U.S., coalition and Iraqi troops in Iraq.” So much skepticism was focused on the evidence of Iraq-Iran linkage that a central question seemed to get overlooked: Why now?

There seems little doubt that Iranians, in some capacity, are active in Iraq. What we must try to figure out now is why the administration has chosen this moment to make such a public case of it. By its own account, these explosive devices, which they say could only have been produced in Iran, have been used against American forces since the middle of 2004.

The reasons the officials give for the timing of the briefing is that the attacks have increased. But this doesn’t answer the question. If the problem is Iranian involvement, why does the frequency of the attacks make a difference? Given this administration’s track record, political motives must be considered by reporters covering this story. Explain to us, why now? After all, the information presented by the administration could be absolutely accurate. The manipulative part could be the way it’s being presented.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.